We love road trips. Between Stephanie and I, we’ve rented cars in driven in some 20-odd countries across the world, many of them in the Balkans. And as a result, we have to say: Balkan road trips are our favorite.
There are a few reasons why taking a road trip through the Balkans is the way to go. One: public transportation isn’t exactly extensive in this neck of the woods. While sure, Balkan buses will take you between all major cities and even most smaller towns, if you want to see some of the most beautiful natural spots in the Balkans you will need a car – either driving yourself or hiring a taxi for the day.
For example, we would have never been able to discover Bulgaria’s Saeva Dupka cave without our own transport, nor have visited stunning Lake Palic in Serbia near the border of Hungary just with public transport.
That said, planning a Balkan road trip is not as easy as just booking a car and heading out wherever your heart desires. There are several rules regarding international borders, and as a result, taking a car around multiple places in the Balkans can get expensive – and forget about picking it up in one country and leaving it in another! You might as well buy your own car for the price they’d charge for that. (No seriously – buying a car in Serbia or Bulgaria is suspiciously cheap).
After planning at least 10 Balkan road trips over the past 3 years, Stephanie and I have compiled our top 15 most essential things to know about road trips in the Balkans.
1. Do not assume you can cross the border freely in a rental car
If you are bringing your own car from elsewhere in Europe – congratulations, you can (mostly) skip this section.
If you want to rent a car in the Balkans for your road trip, you’re going to have to call your rental companies well ahead of time in order to organize cross-border travel. Some countries and car companies are stricter than others.
Also, a side note: If you can only drive automatic (raise your hands, my fellow manual-incapable Americans!) be prepared to pay extra in the Balkans, like much of Europe.
I’ve successfully taken a rental car from Bulgaria to Serbia (by paying a 50 euro/100 leva surcharge for preparing the green card documents) with Naycar, a local renting company. I’ve also had friends rent a car in Macedonia to bring into Kosovo from a local renting car “company” — more like just a random Macedonian man with an extra car! — for no added charge.
Many of the larger rental car companies will give you grief for trying to bring a car into other countries, especially Albania or Kosovo. It’s doable, but you’ll need to contact car companies ahead of time and specifically get them to OK your route and draw up the green card for travel between these places.
This is an incomplete list of car rental companies I’ve aggregated from other travelers’ experiences. These companies should permit you to take your car across the borders relatively painlessly, but always contact them as things are subject to change!
Skopje: Interways – allows you to take cars into Kosovo, 30€ fee for papers.
Sofia: Naycar – allows you to take cars into Serbia and many other countries. 50€ fee for papers.
Belgrade: Sixt – allows you to take cars into Bosnia and many other Balkan countries, but Albania excluded (perhaps Kosovo as well). Extra fee.
Dubrovnik: Sixt – allows you to take cars into Bosnia, Slovenia, and many other Balkan countries. Albania likely excluded, perhaps Kosovo as well. Extra fee.
Tivat: Enterprise – allows you to take cars into Albania, Macedonia & other Balkan countries except Kosovo. Extra fee.
Also, the camper van rental company Nest Campers allows you to bring your camper into all Balkan countries at no extra charge. There are pick up spots in the following cities: Ljubljana, Maribor, Celje (Slovenia) Zagreb (Croatia), Trieste (Italy), and Graz (Austria).
2. Understand the Green Card system
Easier said than done, as I’ve been renting cars in the Balkans for the last few years and I’m still a little fuzzy on it, but I’ll do my best to explain it as far as I understand it. Basically, the Green Card is a travel document ensuring that you have car insurance applicable in European countries. Not all countries will ask to see it, but some will – and if you can’t show it to them, they will require that you purchase insurance from them.
The Balkan countries that will require you to show your Green Card for car insurance are Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Macedonia, Montenegro, and Turkey. Kosovo will require you to purchase your own insurance at the border (15€ for 15 days), as the Green Card will not cover insurance in Kosovo.
EU Countries like Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, and Slovenia will likely not ask to see your Green Card when entering the country (but it’s good to have on hand anyway).
Always ensure your rental car company provides you your Green Card if taking your car abroad and confirm which countries you are able to visit with it.
3. Even if you are able to bring your rental car into Kosovo, do so carefully
It can be confusing to remember the Serbia/Kosovo border rules so here it is again, briefly, to avoid errors. Even Google Maps gets it wrong on occasion, so be cautious and don’t just blindly follow their directions or you may get on the bad side of Serbian border control.
Visit Serbia first if you plan to visit Serbia and Kosovo back-to-back. You can enter Kosovo from Serbia, no problem. Serbia does not view this as exiting their country, but you will get a Kosovo entry stamp.
Note that when you enter Kosovo, you will have to purchase separate road insurance costing about 15 euros – this is legitimate and not a scam, as no Green Cards cover Kosovo, as far as I know.
To avoid issues, it is then recommended after entering Kosovo via Serbia, that you leave Kosovo via Serbia again. From Serbia, you can then leave through a third country. This avoids the off chance that a grumpy Serbian border guard may later say that you overstayed your Serbian visa as you don’t have an official Serbian border stamp. This is rare, but can happen. Most people cross Serbia to Kosovo to a third country (Macedonia, Albania, or Montenegro) with no issues, but I have heard the occasional story of it being problematic in the future, so approach it with caution.
You simply cannot enter Kosovo and then Serbia. Serbian border control will view it as an illegal entry into Serbia, and as a result, they may turn you away or get angry with you.
However, I and all other travelers I’ve spoken to have had no problem having a complete set of Kosovo entry/exit stamps and then entering Serbia at a later date. For example, I visited the Balkan countries in this order: Albania -> Kosovo -> Montenegro -> Bosnia & Herzegovina -> Serbia. It was not a problem. I’ve heard stories of some border guards crossing out the Kosovo stamp… but that may just be rumors.
4. Beware of vignettes (taxes) on your Balkans road trip
Road vignettes and taxes are unavoidable when traveling through the Balkans, and each country has their own specific rules for these. For example, Slovenia charges vignettes of approximately 15 euros per week for a normal sized car, which is effectively a tax to use their roads. You can purchase it online or at a gas station, which is more common.
Bulgaria also charges vignettes. They will be included if you rent your car in Bulgaria, but if you are renting your car elsewhere in the Balkans on your road trip and then enter Bulgaria, you will have to pay the vignettes for road use. These are about 15 BGN (less than 8 euros) for one week. You can actually buy your e-vignette online.
Romania also charges rather affordable vignettes (see the full prices here). A 7 day vignette pass costs just 3 euro, and a 30 day pass is just 7 euros. Like Bulgaria, you can also purchase this online.
Other countries charge tolls (such as Serbia) rather than a comprehensive vignette system. I actually found Serbia’s tolls to be quite expensive – for example, a 2 hour drive from Belgrade to Subotica was over $5 USD each way! There are ways to bypass roads, of course; this is just the main toll roads. You may want to do some research to avoid tolls (Google Maps is great for this). Also, always keep some spare euros on hand just in case some information has changed recently.
5. Balkan drivers are notorious, but no reason to scare you off doing a Balkans road trip
I’ve heard so many horror stories about Balkan drivers… to which I want to counter, have you ever seen a Georgian driver? Now those are people who are well and truly nuts.
Between Stephanie and me, we’ve driven in a handful of Balkan countries and been passengers in virtually all of them. Balkan drivers do tend to drive a little fast, but I wouldn’t say they’re particularly aggressive or dangerous. Generally, the roads are cluttered up with quite a few old and slow cars, so Balkan drivers are used to bypassing slow cars (so far as they are in the right lane).
However, what I’ve found they simply will not tolerate is you going slower than they like in the left lane! I once passed a truck in the slow lane with plenty of room behind me and the car behind me…. only my car was old and crappy and it took a while for it to zoom into the correct gear and actually go quickly. This did not please the Serbian man driving behind me, who then decided to pull ahead of me into the right lane once I pulled over in front of the truck and then slow down quickly while braking in front of me Luckily, my reflexes were pretty solid and I slowed down without too much catastrophe, but it was scary. Be careful when passing trucks in the left lane, as if you don’t do it fast enough you will likely earn the ire of Balkan drivers in expensive cars who disdain your slow-accelerating car and want to show off their “manliness.”
This incident aside, I generally find driving in Serbia extremely pleasant and have clocked over 1,000 kilometers throughout the country, so please don’t let this dissuade you!
I’ve also driven across Bulgaria and back several times and while I’ve witnessed a few accidents, mostly from people speeding in the rain, I’ve never felt particularly afraid of aggressive drivers. Keep your cool, maintain a consistent speed, and let other people be assholes if they’re going to be assholes.
6. Road tripping the Balkans is generally inexpensive, but gas is not
Yes, I’ll fully admit my bias as an American, where a $4 gallon (that’s a $1.08 per liter for all you metric normals out there) is a cause for near-national panic and perhaps even rioting. Usually, our gas costs around $3 per gallon, maybe $3.50 in the expensive cities and states. So from my perspective, I find gas in the Balkans quite expensive!
OK, it’s nowhere near Iceland levels of expensive (is anything?) but it is not cheaper just because you are traveling in cheaper countries. I find that gas, on average, is about 1.20 euros per liter, which for my Americans out there adds up to $5.15 per gallon. It’s more expensive in some countries – Serbia is one of the highest, I’ve found. While this isn’t outrageous, keep in mind that a) oil prices are at the lowest they’ve ever been, so they’ll likely increase and b) many cars you’ll rent in the Balkans will not be extremely fuel efficient, so you will eat through that gas like its candy.
For that reason, if you’re doing an extended Balkans road trip, it may be worth it to research ahead of time the expected mileage of the different car rental options and to spend a little more on a more fuel-efficient car. The small price you pay extra per day may add up to quite a bit of fuel savings in the long run!
7. Balkan roads are way better than the memes tells you
I hear questions about the state of Balkan roads all the time, and their shoddiness is so legendary that there are a million and one memes about them.
However, I’m here to deflate you and let you know that Balkan roads are actually shockingly good compared to previous years standards. In fact, they’re so good that often times, Google Maps hasn’t updated their expected route times and you’ll end up at your destination rather early due to improved roads.
In general, the highways and main roads in the Balkans are excellent, on par with anything you’d see in Europe (and miles better than I’m used to from my years of biking in New York City).
That said, there are the occasional truly heinous road. I ended up on some bumpy but doable roads in Serbia between Novi Pazar and Nis, but I’ve read horror stories of the road to Devil’s Town in Serbia. The road between Kragujevac, Serbia and Belogradchik, Bulgaria is also pretty bad. Albania is notorious for having bad roads, but in 5 weeks in the country I only encountered one, between Korca and Elbasan, and it was only because the main road was being fixed.
The country with the scariest roads in my opinion is Montenegro, because they’re narrow as hell — barely fitting two cars — with hairpin twists and turns that everyone takes like they’re trying to win a race. The serpentine road to and from the Bay of Kotor is not for the faint of heart, but damn, is it beautiful!
8. But Balkan road jams are truly something else
So, you know how I said you might get somewhere early? You may also arrive hours late due to inexplicably awful traffic jams. When a bad accident happens in the Balkans, not only do people stop and rubberneck but many people quite literally get out of their cars, start socializing and chatting, and just generally walking around on a freeway. This has happened to me twice; this is not an exaggeration.
One time in Montenegro, our bus was stopped for five hours while one lane of traffic flowed maddeningly freely towards us. Apparently, no one wanted to take initiative to you know, stop the flow of traffic in one direction for a few minutes so that the cars whose path were blocked could move out of this horrible hours-long jam. It stayed like this for hours until I nearly hitchhiked back into Podgorica with a car driving in the opposite direction when finally, mercifully, we proceeded forward.
Once in Bulgaria, we waited in traffic like this for an hour, maybe two. The accident was so bad that we had to actually drive in the reverse direction on the freeway for miles until we could exit and do a massive workaround. However, I will say the Bulgarian police organizing the detour did an excellent job at signaling and showing people where to go… so maybe things are improving in the Balkans, after all.
9. So always bring road trip snacks
Ok, bus snacks are our big tip for riding buses in the Balkans, but it goes just as well for a Balkan road trip. You never know when you’ll get stuck in a Montenegrin traffic jam that takes 5 hours to problem solve despite one lane being open nearly the entire time (yup) or an inexplicable sheep herder protest in Romania (true story).
You probably won’t find the snacks you’re used to at Balkan gas stations – maybe some Pringles or Doritos if you’re super lucky – so I recommend Pizza Bake Rolls and 7 Day Chocolate Croissants. Stephanie recommends Gummy Bears if available and all the soda in the world.
10. Don’t spend your entire Balkans road trip driving!
The biggest mistake Stephanie and I see first-timers to the Balkans making is trying to cram everything into one Balkan itinerary. Frankly, that’s just a recipe for a chaotic trip where you barely see anything or grasp any of the culture.
At a bare minimum, each country deserves 3 days – and better off, at least a week per country. If this means you can only squeeze 3-4 countries into a monthlong trip, that’s not the end of the world.
In fact, there’s so much to see – so many beautiful waterfalls, lakes, caves, mountains, beaches, villages, and beyond – that you’ll be grateful for taking more time off the beaten path. Besides, isn’t that the whole point of seeing the Balkans on a road trip? Having the freedom to check out the nature and small villages that would otherwise be a pain to visit with just public transportation?
11. Minimize your time in big cities
While I love Balkan cities and think they make the perfect weekend getaway, for a Balkan road trip, cities aren’t ideal. Parking can get expensive if not included in your hotel and sometimes the different parking payment systems are a huge pain in the ass, requiring you to pay via prepaid SMS (not easy to do when you’re just passing through!).
For example, in downtown Sofia, parking is usually 1 euro per hour in private lots – that can get quite expensive! Traffic in the big cities too can get chaotic, especially in Belgrade, where traffic was particularly hellacious at times.
While I’m definitely not trying to dissuade you entirely from visiting cities on a Balkans road trip, I’d encourage you to prioritize the off the beaten path places that are best visited by car – nature, smaller villages, interesting Communist-era monuments, and so on – rather than spending all your time driving from city to city, which can be done by bus for a fraction of the price and less headache, albeit less freedom.
12. The more time you can give yourself, the better
The Balkans are not a “one and done” destination (nowhere is, except maybe Andorra); unfortunately, many travelers seem to treat them this way. If you want to properly see the 12 countries of the Balkans relatively in-depth, you will need around 3-6 months.
That may sound like a lot of time, but look at this way: 3 months only gives you a little over a week in each of the 12 countries we count in the Balkans. While 1 week may be fine for smaller countries like Kosovo, Slovenia, and Macedonia, you’ll likely find it insufficient for larger countries like Croatia, Romania, and Bulgaria.
Of course — not everyone can afford to do this, in terms of either time or money. So instead, give yourself as much time as you can, and set your sights a little smaller.
Maybe focus on the Eastern Balkans (Greece, Bulgaria, and Romania) or on the Western Balkan coast (Croatia, Montenegro, Albania). Maybe focus on just a handful of former Yugoslav countries (Serbia, Kosovo, Macedonia, Montenegro). Do your research, find the hidden gems in each country that are best accessed via car and plan your trip around that. But please, don’t just try to tick off all 12 countries in 12 days! You can do it, sure, but I doubt you’ll like it.
13. Know what things cost before you go!
While the Balkans are cheap in general, road tripping the Balkans is not the cheapest way to travel. Gas, tolls, vignettes, and parking can add up over time. So don’t forget to account for how much that’ll add to your trip. For reference, I usually spend about 80 leva / nearly $50 USD in gas on an average all-day road trip in Bulgaria, say from Sofia to Buzludzha and back wtih a few stops along the way (about 500-600 km). So, roughly figured, that’s about $10 USD you’ll spend in gas per 100 km you plan on traveling. Of course, that depends on your model of car and its efficiency, but it definitely adds up.
Accommodations offer a great value in most of the Balkans. In almost everywhere except Croatia, Slovenia, Greece, and the part of Turkey that lies on the Balkan peninsula, you should be able to find a wide range of high-quality private double rooms for under $30 USD per night, and dorm beds for around $10 USD. In the most expensive parts of the Balkans, particularly Croatia and Slovenia, you’re looking at double or even triple those prices. Parts of Greece and Turkey can be surprisingly cheap off-season – Stephanie paid less than $20 a night for her private room in Heraklion in December.
Food in the Balkans is generally rather affordable. That said, grocery prices are high compared to the standard of living, comparable to France or the UK and definitely more expensive than Germany. Meals in restaurants are delightfully affordable. Outside of Croatia, Greece, and Slovenia you should expect to find a decent meal in a restaurant for $5 USD or less and a fantastic meal for $10 USD.
Croatia, especially Dubrovnik, is quite pricy – I paid $15 for a simple risotto in the Old Town and was literally forced to purchase a $4 tiny bottle of water with my meal, despite having my own water bottle with me. Slovenia is slightly less pricy, but not by much. Kotor is also a little expensive, but the rest of Montenegro is delightfully affordable, especially in the mountains of Zabljak.
Other purchases you may make on your Balkans road trip are generally rather affordable. Many places have low or non-existent entry fees – think 3 euros to enter a fortress in Bulgaria, nothing to visit almost all churches, less than a euro for public transit around a city. Alcohol is laughably cheap – about 1 euro per beer, 1.50-2 per wine, and as low as 50 cents for a shot of rakija, though this can easily be doubled at a nicer bar.
14. Be prepared to change currencies, SIM cards, languages, and sometimes even time zones at every border
Of the 12 countries of the Balkans, it’s quite a mishmash. Four countries use the euro, though only two of those are actually in the EU. Altogether, there are nine currencies used in the Balkans. Another five countries are part of the EU, though only 2 of them are in Schengen (Greece and Slovenia). If you have a European SIM card that has roaming in EU countries, it may or may not work in Bulgaria or Romania – I’ve heard varying stories.
You can keep a stash of euros or USD or do what I prefer to do and withdraw cash in small increments during my time in each country. I then try to use a credit card when possible, which is fairly plausible in most Balkan countries (definitely moreso than Germany), but it’s not so common in Albania and Kosovo.
There are 3 time zones in the Balkans, which can cause confusions when you cross borders sometimes. Greek time is different than Albanian time; Serbian time is different than Bulgarian time; Bulgarian time is different than Turkish time. When in doubt, check!
15. Don’t forget your camera, because the Balkans truly are one of the most beautiful places on Earth
Lake Ohrid, Macedonia. Uvac Canyon, Serbia. Lake Komani, Albania. The 7 Rila Lakes, Bulgaria. The Transfaragan Highway, Romania. Lake Bled, Slovenia. Plitvice National park, Croatia. These are some of the unmissable sights you’ll encounter as you pass through the Balkans.
But don’t miss the hidden gems tucked away in the Balkans. Don’t miss the tiny Dervish monastery of Blagaj, a few miles away from the famous Mostar bridge. Make a detour to Shipka Memorial Church, not far from Buzludzha. Seek out Bulgaria’s own pink lake, just a short drive from Burgas Airport.
Admire the quieter islands of Croatia and Greece. Stop in the Easter-egg painted town of Ciocanasti in Maramures, Romania. Visit Mokra Gora and Tara National Park, nestled in an often-forgotten part of Serbia. Check out the Horseshoe Bend of Lake Skadar from the Montenegro side, then its beauty on the other side from Rozafa Castle in Shkodra.
The Balkans is so much more than its 20 most famous photographs. Go on a Balkans road trip, veer off the beaten path a little (just make sure your tires are up to it), and enjoy.
Bonus: Make Sure You Have Travel Insurance
Finally, make sure you always have a valid travel insurance policy. The Balkans are very safe to travel around, but your car insurance won’t cover you for certain travel emergencies on a road trip like theft or if you get hurt outside of an accident.
For travel insurance, I use World Nomads. I’ve been a happy customer of theirs for almost three years, and I’ve never had an issue when making a claim. I’m happy to refer them to anyone I meet.